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Review – Orchestral Songs, Gustav Mahler (Katarina Karnéus/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki. BIS)

In Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Review on July 24, 2011 at 10:56 am

It’s to Norman Lebrecht and his marvellous book, Why Mahler?, that I owe a debt of gratitude to for helping me to develop a deeper appreciation, enjoyment of and ultimately love for the music of Gustav Mahler. Before reading it, I had struggled with his symphonies and lieder, more focused on waiting for the final bars than listening to the music itself. As I have said in a previous blog, I also think there is something to be said about learning to appreciate and enjoy certain composers as you get older and experience more. For me, Mahler is in that category.

Having developed a deep love of his symphonies – bar perhaps the Fourth, which I still struggle with – I moved onto his lieder with renewed interest.

Mahler naturally bestowed on his lieder the same attention in terms of orchestration and structure but his attention to the words – and by this I don’t only mean the texts themselves which were always so carefully chosen – but also the actual sound of the individual words and syllables themselves, was remarkable.

In any performance therefore of his vocal works all these elements – the orchestral writing, the structure, the words and the sound colours deliberately created – need to be considered and balanced against one another to create a perfect fit. And therefore the singer, orchestra and conductor must be in total synch.

Naturally no performance or recording can be perfect. The best we can hope for is ‘definitive’. And even then more than one recording or performance can be so-called.

And again these choices can be – and are – subjective. It can depend not only on different individual expectations but also on mood, time and environment.

But nonetheless ‘definitive’ is a good yardstick when confronted by a recording that confounds and ultimately disappoints. As does this recording of Mahler lieder by Katarina Karnéus. Having listened to this recording over many weeks, I always felt myself drawn back to Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Fritz Wunderlich and Thomas Hampson.

Winner of Cardiff Singer in 1995, Swedish-born Karnéus has several lieder recital discs under her belt and her recitals of Sibelius and Grieg are particularly notable. Interestingly her very first recording accompanied by the estimable Roger Vignoles featured four of the Rückert lieder featured in the new recording, leaving out Um Mitternacht. I returned to these original performances – granted with piano rather than orchestral – for comparison.

Understandably the performance – piano as opposed to orchestral accompaniment – is different. However the key elements of any performance, particularly Mahler’s lieder, remain the same – clarity, diction, nuance and depth and a supportive accompanist.

The disc opens with Kindertotenlieder and I was immediately struck by the richer, more resonant timbre of Karnéus voice, ideally suited to this repertoire. Nun will sie Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n, with it’s exposed opening and transparent scoring starts well enough with plangent oboe playing but as Karnéus unfolds the vocal line there is more than a little hint of imprecision in terms of tuning which is further marred by her use of vibrato. Vocally Nun seh’ Ich wohl is an improvement with Karnéus keeping a tighter control on the vibrato and unexpected blooms in her singing. Karnéus’ attention to the text occasionally seems overdone, as if she has confused pointedly annunciating almost every syllable as a means of interpretation.

Wenn dein Mutterlein is similarly distracting and towards the end at – O du, des Vaters Zelle – her intonation once again goes wayward.

Oft denk’ Ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen is performed well enough but comes across as dispassionate and almost bland, with no sense conveyed – as by Janet Baker for example – of empty hope.

The final song in the quintet, In diesem Wetter, ultimately betrays one of th key reasons why the performances are so uncompelling. The orchestra under Mälkki is unsympathetic and plain. They fail for example in managing the driving opening of this song, with its sforzandi and pointed wind and brass figurations in comparison to either Barbirolli for Baker or Boulez for von Otter.

And yet the performances of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen are worlds apart in terms of performance and noticeably improved. The opening two songs, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht and Ging heut morgen übers Feld are more distinctively played by the orchestra and as a result Karnéus’ own performances seem freer and less constrained and rhythmically alert with no sense of any intonation problems. Similarly in Ich hab’ ein gluhend Messer, the orchestra finds the necessary bite which in turn encourages Karnéus own performance. Here she finds the right balance of word colour and interpretation as opposed to the worrying heavy annunciation of Kindertotenlieder. As a result, the ending of this song is bitingly bleak.

The opening song of the Rückerlieder, Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, seems to go at one hell of a pace but in fact in comparison with other performances – bar Baker and Christianne Stotlijn – this seems to be the performance norm. The orchestra continues to hold up its own side of the bargain, ably supporting Karnéus in this song as in the remaining songs of the cycle. For example, the gentle momentum of Ich atmet einen linden Duft! is well controlled below the vocal and wind lines as is the fluidity required in the string accompaniment of Liebst du um Schönheit.

By reversing the order, Karnéus ends her Rückerlieder cycle with Um Mitternacht and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. With the former we are once again in the exposed orchestral world of the opening song of the disc, but the level of emotional intensity ism maintained almost throughout building successfully to In deine Hand gegeben! to the end of the song with Karnéus in fine voice.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is for many the yardstick for any performance of this song cycle. And Karnéus does not disappoint with an expansive performance of this fine song. And while she may not quite achieve the serenity of Janet Baker, Und ruh in einem stillen Gebiet!, so delicately underpinned by the orchestra is a beautiful moment. And Mälkki succeeds in winding down the closing bars effectively.

It’s a shame that the opening performances of Kindertotenlieder mar what ultimately could have been a fine recital disc. Karnéus has the voice ideally suited to this repertoire – and I look forward to hearing her in Richard Strauss – and considering the quality of both the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückerlieder I have to wonder if it was a lack of rehearsal or empathy that leads to a disappointing Kindertotenlieder.

But ultimately this new recording doesn’t quite clinch it for me. While Katarina Karnéus turns in a competent performance of two of Mahler’s song cycles, ably accompanied for them most part by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Susanna Mälkki, the final impression is one of disappointment which has me reaching for other performances.

A Very Shakespearean Wagner

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Lohengrin, Bayerische Oper, Munich, July 2011

• Kristinu Sigmundson – Heinrich der Vogler
• Lohengrin – Peter Seiffert
• Elsa von Brabant – Emily Magee
• Friedrich von Telramund – Evgeny Nikitin
• Ortrud – Waltraud Meier
• The Herald – Martin Gantner

• Director – Richard Jones
• Designer & Lighting – Ultz
• Conductor – Kent Nagano

The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Oper, is a beautiful building. The impressive exterior, and marble halls hide an exquisite gold gilt auditorium contrasted with pinks and reds. It was the perfect setting for this memorable performance of Lohengrin.

Admittedly I initially came for this performance to see two of my favourite sopranos – Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier – but on the night the role of Elsa was performed by American soprano, Emily Magee.

I best start with the production itself. This was by Richard Jones and his common production partner, the singularly-named Ultz. I’ve seen many productions directed by this pair. The most memorable was The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant at English National Opera. It was an unusual choice and, despite what many said, a brave and creative decision. If only ENO would take creative risks like that now rather than assuming or rather hoping that plucking a random director will work. Not only did Petra capture a real sense of ‘a time’ but Jones’ trademarks – attention to detail and most importantly, a real effort made to engage with and work with the singers to analyse their characters and develop real, tangible personalities – was evident throughout. And the same attention to detail shone through brightly in Munich.

The production itself was – to say the least – quirky, another Jones/Ultz hallmark – but enjoyable and thought-provoking. When it premiered it drew a great deal of criticism. I can’t pretend to have unlocked Jones’ intention so what I write here is my own interpretation.

This definitely wasn’t a ‘traditional’ production of Lohengrin. In a sense this was a ‘voyeurs’ production. From the start, even as the audience came into the auditorium, Jones had the action unfolding on stage. Before the prelude, a single draftsman working on a building plan; Ortrud alone before the Second Act; and finally a fully completed shell of a house, complete with flowery border. All that was missing was the white picket fence. But I’m pretty sure it was in the audiences imagination as it was so clearly in mine.

In a sense the stage was also ‘naked’. There was a single curtain backdrop towards the front of the stage to create the King’s court. As a result everything felt ‘temporary’ which of course is, in some ways, a theme of the opera. Lohengrin never intends to stay. He is merely the catalyst for events that need to happen to ‘cleanse’ Brabant.

Because in Jones’ mind, Brabant is a damaged place. The Orwellian Herald further underlined Brabant’s sinister aspect. Gottfried, Elsa’s brother is missing. After the prelude, the chorus shuffle on. The setting is anonymous. The costumes made hints at eras but nothing is clear, nor clean cut. The men are in branded Brabant jackets, some in suits, some in t-shirts. The women are similarly attired – only their multitude of A-line skirts skirts suggesting any sense of matronly uniformity. Only the main characters, and Telramund’s conspirators – in their sharp grey suits – stand out.

The King, with his sense of almost forced optimism is in sharp contrast to Telramund and Ortrud – the magnificent Waltraud Meier. With them Jones has gone beyond mere cyphers determined to take charge. Ably abetted by Meier and Nikitin, they are a couple of pure malevolence who stalk the stage. Indeed they are Macbeth-like in their calculated evil, and like their Shakespearean counterparts it is Otrud who until the last is the stronger of the two. A foil to Telramund’s own weakness and mental frailty.

Elsa, as expected, is detached, almost catatonic. But Jones delves deeper. From her first appearance, her shuffling gait as she carries white bricks across the stage and through the doors to the set concealed by the single backdrop of two doors below a set of arcane heraldic symbols says it all. Elsa is ‘damaged goods’ and suspected of murder. She carries a folded poster of her brother, like those used when a child is missing. No one is able to interrupt her catatonic march until she is forcibly restrained by one of the King’s guards. Even then she does not immediately register the reason.

And it is only when the entire stage is revealed that we understand the significance of the lone draughtsman. It is Elsa who, in her workman’s overalls, is building a home, the significance of which didn’t become clear to me until the final act.

Interestingly Jones downplays the arrival of Lohengrin himself. In other productions this is often the dramatic focus of the opening act. Granted, Lohengrin arrives carrying the necessary – and animatronic – swan, but this is not ‘a moment’ in the dramatic sense. Indeed, could they have made Lohengrin look any less the hero in his grey trousers with their silver stripe and blue shirt?

For Jones the attention is in the detail. There is no single dramatic moment in the first act. Even the attempt to burn Elsa at a hastily built stake has a surreal-like quality. Ortrud stalks the stage in her suit and management-look hair style, watching everyone. A sharp contrast to Elsa in her workman’s outfit. Women versus child. Telramund, with his overly excited manners, is a man on the edge. Dangerous. Lohengrin is not a hero. Rather he looks like an accidental tourist.

Even Telramund’s challenge, Lohengrin’s defence of Elsa’s honour and the ensuing sword fight had a strange detached, pantomime quality. Indeed the only act of real aggression is when the King rips the symbol of Brabant from Telramund’s coat and throws it on the ground at the close of the First Act.

Interestingly as the main curtain fell, the audiences response was polite and somewhat muted. But the characters had been set and, I believe, Jones deliberately lulled the audience into a false sense of security, almost making us, by extension, placid participants in the drama itself.

The Second Act opens, as I have already mentioned, with Ortrud alone, seated at the far side of the stage. She sits there like a coiled spring exuding menace and her thoughts are only broken when her husband storms in. He is clearly a broken man. Gone is the smart, buttoned-up noble of the preceding act. Here, shirt undone (and displaying Nikitin’s impressive tattoos), he stumbles and sways across the stage, every so often spying on events behind the backdrop through spy holes in the door. Jones does not have him depict anger as the key driver for revenge, but rather abject humiliation. Pulling a pistol from his pocket he attempts suicide, only to be stopped by Ortrud. Icily calm, she lays out their new plan to destroy both Lohengrin and Elsa. And here, Jones suddenly ratchets up the tension. The audience was suddenly rapt, pulled forward into the drama.

What followed – spurred on by the incredible vocal and acting talents of Meier and Nikitin – was momentous. Again I was drawn to a comparison with ‘the Macbeths’ in the evil motivation that drove them both. The interplay between husband and wife was electric. More than once Telramund attempted to hurt his wife and Ortrud’s reaction made it cleat that this was, at heart, an abusive relationship. And each time he failed. Not through weakness but because it was clear that she was in total control of him. Ortrud was all about control and Meier’s portrayal was faultless. Her call for revenge – to Wotan and Fricka – was chilling and again the only moment in the whole opera where Jones/Meier allowed the character to seemingly lose control.

This was the turning point in the drama and Jones now ratcheted up the momentum inexorably. The backdrop rose to reveal the house much closer to completion, Elsa surveying her creation. The subsequent scene between the two leading ladies – watched by Telramund – was brilliantly acted by Meier and Magee, with the former’s calculating approach to confuse and thereby befriend the bride-to-be all the more chilling by Ortrud’s stealthy movements.

The tension of wedding scene itself – and the confrontation between the key protagonists – was almost unbearable. Changed into her bridal gown, Elsa seemed to find a new inner strength, if only momentarily, as she faced up to Otrud, who once again stalked across the stage as if hunting prey. Typically the arrival of Lohengrin marks a shift in the balance of power as the hero takes the leads and sees off Ortrud. Not in Jones’ production. Again Lohengrin was made to seem weaker and – most tellingly – he played into Elsa’s own insecurities. Never have I seen an Elsa so unconvinced about being a bride.

The curtain went down and the audience – particularly when Meier appeared – went wild.

It was only during the Final Act, and the completion of the house, complete with bed, baby’s cot and high chair that the potential significance of Elsa’s building programme occurred to me. It was therapy. Therapy for Elsa to help her cope with the guilt of her lost brother. But it was also an act of atonement. Elsa building a home, and creating a family to replace him. Almost as if a house, family and child would make it all seem better. I don’t know if it was coincidental or not, but the picture of her missing brother was placed on the wall directly above the high chair. Jones’ attention to detail makes me think it was anything but that.

The Third Act played out traditionally – despite the almost comedic dance routine during the prelude – for the most part, bar two significant reinterpretations. First – and I accept that this is open to debate – it seemed to me that in the scuffle with Telramund, it is Elsa and not Lohengrin, that kills Ortrud’s spouse. To me this was a plausible and significant decision by Jones. First of all the death is accidental but secondly, Elsa now begins to unravel. Her retreat back into her original catatonic state is not so much to do with Lohengrin’s departure but her own association with death. As she is led onto the stage we are back at the beginning – Elsa being suspected of murder.

And secondly, neither Otrud nor Elsa die at the end. Lohengrin exits stage left and touchingly returns carrying ????. Elsa, momentarily revived by the return of her brother, slumps down onto a seat, once again withdrawn from the world. Ortrud, despite seeing the corpse of her dead husband, does not break down. She watches and continues to stalk.

And when the curtain closes it is Ortrud who has her her arm maternally around the young prince. But most chilling, the chorus all seated on the collapsed stage, putting pistols into their mouths.

Brabant has not been purified. Far from it. Brabant is in a worse place than at the start.

So, an incredibly thought-provoking production. Jones’ intellectual bent, his attention to detail, and his clear direction to all the singers never once threatened to swamp the story-telling. Instead it offered a fresh, and to me completely plausible reappraisal of the original story.

And the singers and chorus, so ably led by Nagano in the pit, rose to the occasion. The chorus – despite some dodgy acting – were superb. Their sense of ensemble and precision was brilliant. Nagano led the orchestra and singers like a master, bringing out a burnished quality in the orchestral playing – especially the brass – that was so sadly lacking when I attended The Ring in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Runnicles take note.

Kristinu Sigmundson as Heinrich der Vogler and the Herald of Martin Gantner were clear voiced, with excellent diction. However it was the four principals who made the evening not great – but in my opinion – momentous.

Peter Seiffert is a fine Lohengrin although not a strong actor. He has both the heft and stamina for the role and while he clearly sailed through the role, there were times when a little more finesse and lightness in the vocal line would have made a real difference.

The Friedrich von Telramund of Evgeny Nikitin was simply amazing. He captured perfectly how unbalanced the character really is, portraying with clarity his breakdown from First to Third act. His interactions with Meier – especially in the Second Act – were, as I said, almost Shakespearean in their delivery. Again he is able to carry above the orchestra and s attention to the words, the light and shade of his voice, made his Telramund a real character – not simply a man after power but a man whose pursuit of power was for evil.

Emily Magee had a shaky start but she did not warrant the booing at the end. Initial problems with intonation slowly disappeared so that by her confrontation with Ortrud she was in fine voice. And her acting was superb, capturing the vulnerability as well as the childishness of the character perfectly. At the end – and quite clearly the intention – this Elsa was not a girl to expire but rather to continue suffering.

But it was Waltraud Meier’s Ortrud who stole the evening. This Lady Macbeth in Wagnerian cloth was both consummate actress and superlative singer. Her mere presence on stage was enough to raise the temperature as she stalked and hunted out the other protagonists. Her abusive relationship with Telramund was at the core of her character and the decision not to kill her at the end was telling. Ortrud had – in all senses of the word – won. She had destroyed Elsa. Did not grieve the demise of her abusive husband. And she had the child. And her singing was simply breathtaking. I have seen her in other Wagnerian roles – Isolde in Paris for example – but Ortrud was made for her. The role sits comfortable in her range, and she negotiates the role with vocal precision married with clear and meaningful diction.

So a memorable, brilliant Lohengrin. Jones delivered an intelligent production that took a new but clearly deliberate look at the story. The characters – one and all – were three dimensional and not your typical stand-and-deliver cyphers. And the quality of the singing was of the highest standard. In fact I would go so far as to say that this was one of the most enjoyable and challenging productions I have seen in years.

So it does beg the question. If this can be achieved in Munich why can’t it happen in London, New York or San Francisco?

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